The changemaker: Meet new ULaw Dean Elizabeth Kronk Warner

Ask Elizabeth Kronk Warner, the new dean at the S.J. Quinney College of Law, why Salt Lake City is a great place to attend law school and she won’t hold back. Not even a little.

World-class faculty consulting on legislation for Congress or being published in top journals? Check.

A supportive community and opportunities for law students to gain real-world experience before graduation? Check.

A Pac-12 university with opportunities to pair with other parts of campus on unique initiatives? That too.

“So, you’ll get a world-class education and you’ll be in an inclusive and comfortable environment. And you couple that with the fact that just a couple of minutes away you’re at the Utah Capitol, able to do legislative work or you’re at the U.S. District Court or Utah Supreme Court, able to do research or a clerkship—the fact that you have that kind of access to courts is not something many law schools can claim,” said Kronk Warner, her voice rising with excitement when ticking off each point.

But she’s not done yet.

“On top of that, you know, if you’re a skier, and you do your schedule right? You can hit the slopes every day,” she added with a smile. 

She’s only been on the job for about a month, but Kronk Warner has embraced her new home and role as an ambassador for the College of Law with an enthusiasm that’s hard to ignore.

She’s a force ready to get things done, unapologetic about her belief in the College of Law’s ability to reach new heights and enhance the quality of education for future generations of lawyers preparing to work in a changing legal industry.

As orientation begins for a new group of U law students, a historic first coincides: Kronk Warner will officially began her leadership of students as the college’s first female and Native American dean.

 “I’m truly humbled to have the position of being both the first female and the first Native American dean at the S.J. Quinney College of Law. It’s something I take very seriously because I understand that for many people it’s important to have a woman and a woman of color in this role,” said Kronk Warner, who is member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians.

“My goal is to make the law school a truly inclusive and welcoming place for everybody.”

From the reservation to the courtroom

 Kronk Warner’s road to the deanship began with a goal to one day become an attorney, an aspiration she had from an early age. Her parents both were attorneys, but their paths to law careers weren’t paved in gold.

 Her father got into the business by writing to all of the county judges in Michigan asking if they needed a prosecutor, an unusual way to get a foot-in-the-door. Most shot him down. Luce County, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, hired him. He’d eventually go on to work a trial against famed attorney F. Lee Bailey, known for defending Sam Sheppard, the “Boston Strangler” and O.J. Simpson. Bailey was so impressed with his small-town opponent after the case that he offered him a job at Bailey’s big city law firm.

Kronk Warner’s father declined the offer, instead opting to serve his community as a prosecutor. He eventually became an administrative law judge and married Kronk Warner’s mother.

 “I think that’s a big reason I became a lawyer. I saw all the positives there were to being a lawyer and the difference you can make being a part of your community and that was very inspirational to me,” said Kronk Warner.

 Kronk Warner recalls two distinct childhoods: The time when the family survived and the time when the family thrived.  In Kronk’s early childhood, her father’s $19,000-a-year salary meant the family scraped by with powdered milk and commodity cheese. Her mother didn’t envision a life beyond staying home to raise a family, the usual choice she’d seen modeled by women around her on the reservation who often married local welders and lumberjacks in the blue-collar region.

Her mother’s mindset one day changed after persuasion from her father that yes, women could go to law school too. Kronk Warner watched her mother attend law school and establish a legal career that elevated the one-time stay-at-home mom to the position of tribal judge on the reservation. The family’s economic situation moved to one of affluence.

“My mom stayed at home with me until I was 8 and then she went to law school. So, I not only had a very positive experience with my dad being a lawyer, but a really positive experience because I watched my mom go to law school. I remember the day she got an ‘A’ in tax law. She was literally skipping down the driveway,” said Kronk Warner.

 The family’s shift in careers opened up doors to resources that put Kronk Warner onto a trajectory of success. She attended Cornell University in New York, drawn to the institution’s strong program in American Indian history and culture.  Law school at the University of Michigan followed, another school with solid American Indian programs, the field of study which most inspired Kronk Warner.

She practiced environmental, Indian and energy law as an associate in the Washington, D.C., offices of Latham & Watkins, LLP and Troutman Sanders LLP. In 2010, she was selected to serve as an Environmental Justice Young Fellow through the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and U.S.-China Partnership for Environmental Law at Vermont Law School. She has also served as a visiting professor at Xiamen University in Xiamen, China, and Bahcesehir University in Istanbul, Turkey. She served as chair of the Federal Bar Association Indian Law Section and was elected to the association’s national board of directors in 2011.

After leaving law-firm life for academia, she served on the law faculties at Texas Tech University and the University of Montana. Teaching fit her outgoing personality and as a one-time opera performance major, she enjoyed the theater of the classroom.

She moved to the University of Kansas School of Law in 2012, her last stop before accepting the deanship in Utah this year.  Her scholarship, which focuses primarily on the intersection of Indian law and environmental law, has been published in several prominent journals, including the Arizona Law Review, Colorado Law Review and Columbia Journal of Environmental Law. She is also co-author of the casebook “Native American Natural Resources,” and she co-edited “Climate Change and Indigenous People: The Search for Legal Remedies.”

She has served as an appellate judge for her hometown Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians Court of Appeals in Michigan and as a district judge for the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation in Kansas.

Despite early career experiences with the most prestigious of law firms and chances to travel to all corners of the world, Kronk Warner said her childhood experiences of struggling to get by early on has shaped her today into a fierce advocate to help potential law students believe in themselves and their ability to pursue a legal education. Case in point: She traveled to New Mexico earlier this summer to visit the Pre-Law Summer Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to assisting American Indians and Alaska Natives to prepare for the rigors of law school. Kronk Warner shared her own story and encouraged students to consider the U as a future law school option. Several Navajo students followed up after their encounter with her, a step in the right direction for improving diversity among law school applicants and one Kronk Warner wants to build on through improving diversity initiatives at the law school.

“How do we build pipelines? How do we create mentors? How do we create, ‘Oh, she did it. I can do it too?’ ” said Kronk Warner.

Prior experiences will help to guide her. At the University of Kansas, Kronk Warner led the effort to incorporate diversity, equity and inclusion matter into each year of the law school curriculum and formed faculty/staff, student and alumni diversity, equity and inclusion groups. In her earliest days on the job, she’s creating the foundation to do the same in Utah.

A connector

Kronk Warner hasn’t wasted any time getting to know Utah. She arrived in the Beehive State with an agenda packed full during her initial days on the job, canvassing the region to meet alumni in Ogden, Provo, St. George, Las Vegas and several law firms across the Wasatch Front.

With each visit, she’s eager to share her passion for the future of the College of Law, of her belief that that U and its exceptional legal program is undervalued by east coast peers who are too quick to overlook the institution and its high-caliber research and faculty —people who regularly grace the national stage and are invited to vital public policy discussions on subjects like victims’ rights, consumer debt protection and anti-discrimination regulations for LGBTQ communities.

It’s a perception Kronk Warner is set on changing, with a focus on raising the national reputation of the law school through telling the story of its longstanding history and successes while also priming audiences to keep an eye out for what’s next at the U, an institution on the rise.

Her ability to bring people together to embrace change is one of the reasons the U’s senior vice president for academic affairs tapped her for the position from a competitive pool of applicants after a national search for a new leader.

“Kronk Warner is highly regarded as a natural leader and consensus builder who engages deeply, prioritizes both faculty scholarship and student success and is committed to equity, diversity and inclusion,” said Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Dan Reed in announcing her hiring earlier this year. “Her academic background is aligned with the strengths of our law school and her experience in administration, alumni and donor relations, scholarship and community service will help move our outstanding law school to new heights.”

She’s also keen to collaborate with other law schools wrestling with how to be a resource in solving broader issues facing the legal industry. Among the first visitors to visit her new office at the law building was Gordon Smith, the dean at Brigham Young University’s law school in Provo. Kronk Warner and Smith were quick to find common ground in wanting to improve law school diversity, a goal if accomplished may lead to a more diverse judiciary, bolster economic growth and attract more talent to law firms among other things.

The two joined forces at the Utah State Bar convention in Park City soon after meeting, taking the stage before hundreds of lawyers at the annual gathering of the entity in charge of licensing attorneys. Together, they encouraged professionals to advance diversity and inclusion initiatives and committed as law schools to better seek out and promote those values.

Smith, after the visit, was quick to compliment his new colleague and share posts of their presentation on social media.

“I look forward to our future collaborations,” he said.

A time for change

Kronk Warner’s vision for strategically moving the law school forward comes with a framework designed to build on historic strengths of the institution while forming new foundations to excel.

For five years running, the institution’s environmental law program, anchored by the Wallace Stegner Center for Land, Resources and the Environment , has earned a top 10 national ranking in U.S. News & World Report. For the first time in history this year, the institution’s health law program earned a national ranking, scoring 36th on the U.S. News & World Report list, as the college’s Center for Law and Biomedical Sciences continues to gain national recognition.

She will foster the college’s Master of Legal Studies program into its second year, continuing to build the new degree program that is designed to broaden the law school’s course offerings to students interested in legal education outside of a traditional J.D. 

She’s building bridges around campus—brainstorming with the School of Medicine on how law students might assist patients with legal needs; how law students can pair with social work students to better serve marginalized communities; how law students can assist with entrepreneurs at Lassonde and engineering to draft patents or provide support on other legal matters affecting those specialty areas. The possibilities are endless at a campus as interdisciplinary as the U, said Kronk Warner.

“There are amazing opportunities for cross-campus collaboration, which the University of Utah is so uniquely poised to do because the university as a whole is doing great work,” she said.

Besides making history as the first female dean, Kronk Warner has appointed an all-female leadership team, another first for the college. Amelia Rinehart will serve as associate dean of Academic Affairs and RonNell Andersen Jones will serve as associate dean of Faculty and Research as part of Kronk Warner’s new administration.

Kronk Warner will oversee an overhaul of the law school’s experiential learning, in-house clinics and externship program with the help of newly hired program director Anna Carpenter and associate director Ashley Mendoza.

She’s moving forward on an idea brought forward by Clifford Rosky, a law professor, to better incorporate wellness initiatives into law school—a competitive and grueling experience for many students, which can bring on depression and anxiety. Rosky has led the charge to better connect students with mental health resources, including on-site yoga and mindfulness trainings and a therapist/counselor who will be staffed at the law school in the near future as better outreach for students.

A track record of success

Kronk Warner’s ambition at the College of Law comes at a time when law school admissions nationally are starting to rebound after a sharp and difficult decline that followed the great recession. With fewer applicants came smaller classes. And a shrinking job market meant fewer jobs available to talented groups of law graduates.

 The 105 students in the College of Law’s incoming class of 2022 represent an increase in the number of students admitted this year. The class is also the third in the College of Law’s history that is predominately female.  It’s a sign that things are looking up in legal education, said Kronk Warner.

 Her mantra that brighter days are ahead has allowed her to quickly build rapport with the College of Law’s faculty, staff and students, many who welcome her energy and resolve to steer the institution into a new era.

“We are so fortunate to have Dean Kronk Warner leading the College of Law.  She brings such a powerful combination of strategic vision, commitment to diversity, and interest in cross-campus collaboration,” said Rosky, the law professor leading the new wellness initiative. “And she has already taken such an active role in getting to know our students, staff, faculty, and alumni.  She is truly a perfect fit for the college at this exciting time in our history.”

Kronk Warner’s ability to hit the ground running isn’t a surprise to former colleagues, who praise her leadership and see potential for her better put the College of Law on the national map.

Darby Dickerson, president-elect of the Association of American Law Schools and the current dean of the John Marshall Law School, called Kronk Warner “constructive and creative.”  The two worked together for a year when Dickerson served as dean of Texas Tech University, where Kronk Warner arrived in 2011 to take a professor role.

“I was immediately impressed with Elizabeth. She is an incredibly positive person who engages deeply and professionally. In just one year at Texas Tech, she made a positive impact. She was known as an outstanding classroom teacher who was always prepared and cared about her students and their future careers. She was a productive scholar and an excellent colleague who was always willing to help others, whether to read a draft of their latest article or kick around ideas,” said Dickerson.

“She pitched in on committees and would never turn down a request to help students, whether with a moot court practice, letter of recommendation, or something else. I worked closely with her that year because she served on the faculty selection committee. During that process, she was valuable in helping to identify top candidates and to recruit those we chose to interview. I was impressed by how well she was able to articulate the school’s vision and talk about how the school’s mission and vision intersected with her own work. She has a knack for connecting with people quickly and earning their trust.”

Kronk Warner has made a positive impression in a short amount of time with the College of Law’s Board of Trustees and in Utah’s tight-knit legal community already, said Christina Jepson, president of the college’s Board of Trustees and an attorney at Salt Lake City-based Parsons Behle & Latimer.  The dean wants to raise scholarships to help ease the burden of law student loans, she noted.

“We are laser focused on raising scholarship money and Dean Kronk Warner has a lot of interesting ideas about student scholarships. She will bring new energy and enthusiasm to raising scholarship money. I hope our alums will take the time to get to know Dean Kronk Warner. She is very kind and down to earth and really enjoys meeting with alums,” said Jepson. 

The working mom

Outside of the many factors that make Kronk Warner a dynamic leader and engaging personality is another distinguishing label: Mom.  She has a 2-year-old son and a husband, Connor Warner, who is joining the U in an assistant professor (clinical) position at the College of Education.

Warner’s husband is a Montana native and a return to the West has been a homecoming for the family, she said.  Most mornings, the family hikes in nearby Millcreek Canyon to start the day and admires the beauty of Utah before heading to work.

As much as she’s itching to tell the story of the College of Law, she also wants to tout her love for her new state —a place where she’s already finding herself at home.

“If you talk to any of my friends or colleagues they will tell you that I have always said it was my dream to go to the University of Utah,” said Kronk Warner. “I have such high appreciation and esteem for this institution. It really is the premier law school of the West.”

“I pretty much go to sleep thinking about the University of Utah. I wake up thinking about the University of Utah. It comes from a place of being really excited about working with the amazing faculty, staff and students that we have here.”